By Laura Vozzella
The News and Observer, Raleigh, North Carolina
October 8, 2000
BALTIMORE, Maryland - Helen Wilson is doing her part for the survival
of the rare white rhinoceros: standing for hours on end at the Baltimore
Zoo and looking for things that would force most folks to avert
their eyes. She jots down any signs that the zoo's two rhinos are
about to mate, and the signals aren't pretty.
In this case, a come-hither look doesn't involve batted eyelashes.
A female rhino in the mood will curl her tail out of the way and
back into the male. A randy male will sniff his potential mate's
dung, then do the same to her backside.
Not exactly romantic, but welcome moves at the zoo where staff
say a union between 32-year-old Daisy and 7-year-old Stubby would
make Daisy one of the oldest females of the threatened species ever
to breed in captivity. So volunteers such as Wilson have dutifully
kept watch almost daily since spring, rooting for a May-December
romance that keepers say could be foiled by a foster mother-son
"It's quite an honor to be able to do something like this,"
said Wilson, 56, jotting notes on a clipboard as Stubby took a few
whiffs at Daisy's back end Saturday morning.
A retired Social Security management analyst, Wilson had no trouble
translating the birds and the bees into bureaucratese. She noted
the time and made a check mark in a box marked "A/G investigation,"
which, according to a glossary provided to volunteers, stands for
"sniff the anogenital region of the other animal."
Wilson and others who offered to pitch in at the zoo were startled
by some of the coarse particulars of pitching rhino woo.
"I know my mouth dropped open," Wilson said, recalling
her reaction when keepers presented the glossary at a training session.
Since then, however, Wilson has become comfortably conversant in
matters of rhino love.
"He'll be lying there taking a nap," Wilson said of Stubby,
"and he gets up and he has an erection. I mean, it's just there."
Promising signals like that, however, have yet to produce any mating
at least as far as anyone at the zoo knows. Stubby's name doesn't
hint at the problem, keepers say; it refers to his horn, which used
to be on the short side but now measures a perfectly respectable
12 inches. The two rhinos are close, but in a way that may work
against putting Daisy in the family way. Daisy, who came to the
zoo in 1992, took Stubby under her wing when he arrived in 1996.
"He came in as a young male just separated from his mother,
and he was pretty upset," said Brad Hange, senior mammal keeper.
The keepers placed the two together to try to calm Stubby. "They
established a real strong relationship," Hange said. "My
concern is, was it potentially almost a mother-son relationship?"
A mother-son bond without any Oedipal overtones -- at least not
until about a year ago. That's when, for the first time, Stubby
bested Daisy in one of their playful sparring matches. After that,
he started displaying bullish behavior. That's when zoo officials
decided they should start monitoring the rhinos' behavior, an effort
that began in earnest last spring. So far, there is no evidence
that the pair has mated.
If the pair breeds, it would be important to the species because
Daisy was born in the wild, probably in South Africa. That would
bring fresh genes into the pool of animals born in captivity. Stubby
was born at a zoo in Knoxville, Tenn.
White rhinos number about 10,000 today, but were once hunted nearly
to extinction, in part because in many Asian cultures the horn is
supposed to have value as an aphrodisiac. Noting that the horn is
made of the same material as human fingernails, keepers aren't betting
on that to turn Daisy and Stubby on. Inside the animals' sleeping
quarters, they've posted a photograph of a male rhino mounting a
"I suggested candles and soft music," Wilson said, "but
I don't think they've done that."
Female rhinos are capable of reproducing well into their 30s, but
it would be unusual for one that has never mated to start at that
age, keepers said. A test conducted on Daisy's dung last year revealed
that she is still producing hormones required for breeding. The
oldest female known to breed in captivity was 39, said Andrea Keller,
a zoo spokeswoman.
As far as anyone knows, Daisy has never mated. She did not get
along with Leroy, a rhino in his late 30s that had to be sent away
a few years ago to a ranch in Texas. So it isn't just a matter of
Daisy getting her groove back with a younger male. She may never
have grooved in the first place.
Wilson hopes she'll be the lucky one who sees them mate.
"I've never been bored with it," she said. "Everyone
wants to be the volunteer who is there observing some active behavior."